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Persian love story a little too spare

Review: IllUMEnate, Layla Majnun ⋅
Subiaco Arts Centre, October 2 ⋅
Review by Varnya Bromilow ⋅

First it was stories around the campfire, then it was books, then radio serials, then films, then television, then webisodes on YouTube. The history of storytelling can also be read as a history of our diminishing attention spans. Where once we had the ability to focus on a single speaker, our contemporary brains have become accustomed to the sort of dazzling clutter our antecedents could never have imagined.

Is my judgement leaking off the page? I lament this diminishment. Which is why I was excited to get along to the Subiaco Arts Centre this week to see Layla Majnun, a unique storytelling event produced by Performing Lines WA. Billed as the greatest love story ever told, Layla Majnun is a traditional Persian story of love and separation. In this world premiere, scholar and performer Feraidoon Mojadedi, together with local group IllUMEnate, tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers in a bare-bones, stripped-back production that has far more in common with stories around the campfire than with any webisode.

Perhaps as a counterpoint to the sparseness of the production, the preamble to show was decidedly elaborate. The foyer of the Arts Centre was threaded with fairy lights, plump cushions for sitting strewn across the floor. The savoury scent of Persian foods filled the air, courtesy of a food van parked out front. Headscarves and platform heels; Converse and saris; a riot of colour. The capacity crowd was buzzing — snapping selfies in front of the elaborate decorations, enjoying the virtuosic sitar playing, chattering in anticipation.

Finally, as the lights went up, delicate Farsi script projected onto six pillars faded into obscurity. Mojadedi appeared alone on the stage, eager, but perhaps slightly nervous, to begin his hour-long tale. Mojadedi has a rich voice that carries easily and although some of his pacing was a little stilted, the story felt naturally told, intimate.

The straight narrative is interwoven with chanting of Farsi and it was during these interludes that Majodedi seemed most comfortable. The soothing rhythm of the language created an almost musical tonal switch and a welcome diversion to the bare simplicity of the story. For the first half hour I felt transported, carried gently along by the tale. Excerpts of poetry from Rumi and other Persian poets were projected onto the six pillars, each moved into place by Mojadedi as another section of the story was completed.

But by the second half of the performance I was ashamed to find myself yearning for a more varied aesthetic experience, for a more compelling narrative pull. Layla Majnun is not a story with twists and turns; there is little suspense drawing us forward. While the delivery is soothing, the lack of visual elements seemed a lost opportunity. Some of the projections were genuinely beautiful (the animated projections were particularly gorgeous) but I found myself wondering why director James Berlyn had not chosen to make more use of these elements to illustrate, ornament the narrative?

By the latter half Layla Majnun felt like a challenge to contemporary audiences:­­ we know you’re used to spectacle so let’s see if you can keep focus with all the trimmings stripped away? It might have worked too, were the story a more varied one than a simple tale of thwarted love. If there had been a less predictable, less expected narrative outcome the audience would have had no trouble keeping faith. But as it was, the story alone was simply not engaging enough to keep the keen audience onside. In their eagerness to be entertained in a more conventional manner, some of the audience laughed at inopportune moments — at times it seemed a desperate response to the one-note earnestness of the performance.

It’s a commendable task — to bring a traditional story from another culture to broader audiences.  And I admit that my failure to be satisfied with the simplicity of the staging may be an indictment on my own attentional deficits more than anything else. But I just wish Layla Majnun had felt more like an invitation to share in a new experience, rather than a gauntlet thrown down.

Layla Majnun continues until October 5. 

Pictured top: Feraidoon Mojadedi in ‘Layla Manjun’. Photo: Christophe Canato.

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